‘Requa‘ (originally Rek-woi) is a native American place name just inside the Oregon border in Northern California. It is situated on a hill, looking down on the mouth of the Klamath River and the split rock Oregos, traditionally sacred to the Yurok Indians who lived in the area. The story printed here is the first third of a novella by Tillie Olsen.
It seemed he had to hold up his head forever. All he wanted was to lie down. Maybe his uncle would let him, there in that strip of pale sun by the redwoods, where he might get warm.
I got those sitting kinks, too, his uncle said, but you don’t see me staggerin round like an old drunk . . . Here, shake a leg and let’s get wood for a fire. Dry pieces if there is any such. I’ll catch the fish.
But he had to heave. Again.
How can you have ‘any a shred left to bring up. Remind me not to take you noplace but by street car after this . . . Alright, stretch out: you’ll see you’re feeling better.
Everything slid, moved, as if he were still in the truck. He had been holding up his head forever. The spongy ground squished under him, and the wet of winter and spring rains felt through the tarp. He was lying on the ground, the ground. There might be snakes. The trees stretched up and up so you couldn’t see if they had tops, and up there they leaned as if they were going to fall. There hadn’t even been time to say goodbye to the lamppost that he could hug and swing himself round and round. Round and round like his head, having to hold it up forever. Being places he had never been. Waiting moving sliding trying. Staying up to take care of his mother, afraid to lie down even when she was quiet, ’cause he might fall asleep and not hear her if she needed him.
Even the sun was cold. Wes took off his mackinaw and threw it over to him. He squinched himself together to try and fit under it. Moving sliding. The road was never straight, the pickup bumped and bumped and he had to hold up his head. Even when he threw up, his uncle wouldn’t stop. Maybe it was the whiskey they’d had when they got back from that place, made him sick. Or the up all night, up-down sorting and packing, throwing away and loading. Then that wet hoohoo wind on the auto ferry, and the night so dark he didn’t even get to see the new bridge they were building.
The trees were red, like blood that oozied out of old meat and nobody washed the plate. Under them waved – ferns? Baddream giant ones to the bay kind they put around flowers for too sick people.
He had been holding up his head forever. The creek was slipping and sliding too. His uncle came from nowhere and put three fishes too close to him on a rock. They flopped and moved their sides, trying hard to breathe like too sick people.
He pulled the tarp farther down to the next stripe of sun. A wind made the skinny fire cough gallons of smoke and him shiver even more. Curling and curling till he got all in a ball under the mackinaw and didn’t have to see
When we woke up, he was warm. Fog curled high between the trees, the light shone rosy soft like a bedroom lamp lit somewhere. By the fire, a harmonica in his hand, his uncle was sleeping. Across the creek, just like in the movie show or in a dream, a deer and two baby deers were drinking. When he lifted his head, they lifted theirs. For a long time he and the doe looked into each other’s eyes. Then swift, beautiful, they were gone – but her eyes kept looking into his.
Wes was mad to have conked out like that. Six more hours to go – that’s if this heap holds up and we don’t get stuck ‘hind a load going up a grade. I’ll have to put out at work like always tomorrow, and it’s sure not any restin we been doin these gone days.
Just like before, but colder. Moving sliding. Having to hold up his head. Bumproad twisty in a dark moving tunnel of trees. The lumber trucks screamed coming round the bends, and after it was dark their lights made the moving fog look scary. Sometimes he could sleep, sagged against his uncle who didn’t move away. Cold or jolts would wake him. He didn’t understand how it was that he was sitting up or why he didn’t have a bed to lie down in or why or where he was going. All he wanted was to lie down
A long bridge with standing stone bears. His uncle said: Klamath, almost there, (Underneath in the night, yearling salmon slipped through their latest fresh water, making it easy to the salt ocean years.) When the car stopped, there wasn’t even a street lamp to see by. A lady came out to help. The light from the open door made the dark stand taller than even the redwoods and that leaned like it might fall on him too. The wind or something blew away her words and his uncle’s words. His feet were pins and needles too many boxes and bundles too many trips down and back a long hall like a cave. A feather cape or something hanging got knocked down. His head gasped back and forth like the sides of the fish on the rock. Something about: we didn’t throw away nothin well I’m sure not goin to miss where I’ve been hot milk or coffee? but he didn’t answer, just lay down on a cot with the bundles stacked around him and went into a dream.
So he came to Requa March, 1932 13 years old.
He stands with his back clamped hard against the door Wes has left open, and he has jumped up from the cot to close.
Hey. Leave it open. My can’s still draggin. A block behind.
(No smile. Skinny little shrimp. Clutching at the door knob, knuckles white, nostrils flaring. Funny animal noises in his throat.)
Sleeping – all day? Cmon, you had to at least take a leak and put something into that belly . . . Mrs Ed or Yee didn’t stick their nose in? You didn’t see nobody? . . . Well (looking around), one thing, you sure weren’t neating up the place.
(Pale. 01 Ghostboy. Silent Cal.) (Natural – it’s plenty raw yet.)
I been sleepin too – on my feet AND gettin paid for it. That’s talent. (No smile) I wasn’t bawlin you out, we can get squared away tonight or tomorrow . . . Sure you have to come to eat. It’ll only be them that stays here. We all get along. You don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.
They are taking away the boxes and bundles, his low little walls.
That one on top: left over groceries. Into the kitchen, Yee. Forget takin it off the week’s board, Mrs Ed, they didn’t cost me nothin. Bedding stuff, Bo; up to the attic. Pots and kitchen things, High. Attic . . . Well who’d I leave them for and I thought they might be worth a dime or two. Listen, you’d be surprised how many’s been in tryin to sell Evans their pots and blankets and everywhich things. Even guns and fishin gear, and thats get-by when nobodys workin. (Lowered voice) Just her clothes, Mrs Ed, you know anybody? Mrs Ed’s room. Lamps and little rugs, Stevie said they was theirs. Sure lay it down, save me a splinter. Looks good . . . Anyone for a lamp? (Funny noises in the kid’s throat.) Gear. He’ll put ’em away, Mrs Ed. The bottom drawer, kid, yours and room to spare. Just a mitt? no ball, no bat? . . . Oddsies, endsies. Yah, a radio. Even works: Kingfish and Madam Queen, here we is. Stevie, Mrs Edler is talking at you: you got clean stuff for school or does Yee have to wash? No, we never talked is he goin to school or what . . . I’ll tell you this, though, he’s not going through what me and Sis did: kicked round one place after another, not havin nobody. Nobody. Right, Stevie? Can you use a clock, High? Attic . . . Was you startin to say something, Stevie? (Ghostboy! Swallowing, snuffling.) Naw, that last box stays: our ketchall; it’ll take time, goin through it.
Wait, Bo, maybe I’ll chase along after all IF you got the do-re-mi. Sattiday night, isn’t it? and I feel the week. (What am I doing, what am I goin to do with this miserable kid?) Stevie’s for the shuteye anyway, aren’t you, kid?
Are you for the shuteye, Stevie?
Scratch of a twig on the window. All he has to lull to, who has rocked his nights high on a tree of noise, his traffic city.
Blind thick dark, whose sleep came gentled in street-lamp glow.
And the head on his pillow bulging, though still he is having to hold it up somewhere And the round and round slipping sliding jolting moved to inside him, so he has to begin to rock his body; rock the cot gently, down and back.
Down and back. It makes a throb for the dark. A clock sound.
That man Highpockets who stuck his hand out at supper and said ‘Shake, meet the wife’ and everybody laughed, he had their clock that stood by the bamboo lamp. A tiny lady in a long dress leaned on it and laughed and held up a tinier flower branch. It had been one of his jobs to wind it and it wheezed while he was winding it.
He couldn’t remember, was it Bo had taken the lamp? Telling everybody at the table like it was a joke or important. Would you believe it? He’s never been fishin never been huntin never held a gun never been in a boat.
Down and back. The army blanket itched. When he was a kid he’d really believed that story about they were that colour and scratchy because of blood and mud and poo and powdered licy things from the war that never could get washed out
Down and back A clock sound It keeps away
What had happened with the bloody quilt? Soft quilt She hadn’t even asked how he was when they let him in after all that waiting and waiting to see her Just: did you soak my quilt? Burning eyes
Gentle eyes that looked long at him blood dripping from where should be eyes Out in the hall swathed bodies floating like in bad movies never touching the ground At the window
down and back down and back
If he had the lamp the boxes
You promised and see I’m someplace else again dark and things that can get me and I don’t know where anything is. Don’t expect me to be ‘sponsible they should have put the clock and lamp in with her the boxes and bundles and wall and put them round her everything would be together he wouldn’t have to try and remember or hold up his head that wouldn’t lay down inside the one on the pillow so he could sleep
down and back down and back
All that week he would be lying on the cot in the half dark when Wes got home from work; jump up to re-close the door; lie down again until Wes made him wash up, go in to supper.
At the table he looked at no one, answered in monosyllables, or seemed not to hear at all, stared at the wall or at his wrist, messed the food on his plate into the form of one letter or another, hardly ate
Supper over, he would walk somnanbule back to the gaunt room, take off his shoes, get under the covers and lie there, one hand over his eyes.
Bo, Hi, crowded in chattering alongside the radio or playing a quick round of cards; Wes oiling his boots for work, tinkering with fishing-hunting gear, playing the harmonica; or the room empty: lying there, his arm over his eyes snuffling scratching swallowing
One Monday (let him be a while, Mrs Ed had said), Wes, on his way to work, left the boy at the Klamath crossroads to wait the school bus.
He stands motionless in the moist fog that is almost rain, in Bo’s too big fishing slicker. Blurs of shapes loom up and pass. Once a bindle stiff plods by. The across-the-road is blotted out.
When the bus stops and the door snorts open, he still does not move. The driver tries three honks, pokes his head out and yells: c’mon New, whatever your name, I’m late. You can do your snoozing inside.
Laughter from in the bus. In hoots.
Slowly, as if returning from an infinite distance, the boy focuses his eyes on the driver, shaking his head and moving his lips as if speaking. He is still mutely shaking ‘No,’ as the faces at the grimy windows begin to slip by fast and faster contorted or vacant or staring.
On his face, lifted to the fog, is duplicated one by one, the expressions on the faces of his fellow young. Still he stands, his lips moving. When he has counted thirteen cars passing (a long while), he crosses and goes back down the road, the way his uncle had brought him.
This time when Wes got home, his neatly made bed was torn up, its blanket bunched round the boy stretched out in dimness near the window.
At the expected convulsive jumpup, Wes stepped back and grabbed the doorknob himself. Alright, alright, I’m closin it. The law ain’t chasin me. Are they chasin you?
(but the boy had not moved at all)
He felt like yelling: why do you do that or: look at me for once, say hello.
Instead he sat down heavily in the big chair, unlaced his boots. No, I won’t ask what he’s been doin. Nothin. He’ll say it in nothin, too.
Night scratched at the window and seeped from the room corners. No other sound but rising river wind.
The work of the day (of the week, of years) slumped onto Wes. For a minute he let go, slept: snored, great sobbing snores. In a spasm of effort, jerked awake, regarded the shadows, the rumple on the floor by the window.
Something about the light, the radio, not being snapped on; the absence of the usual attempted pleasantries; some rhythm not right, roused the boy from the trancing secret tremble of leaves against the low glowing sky. Was that his mother or his uncle sagged there in the weight of weariness, and why were her feet on the floor?
Get back he said implacably Your footstool’s gone too In a box or throwed away or somebody else resting their tootsies on it Serves you right How you going to put up your feet and rub on the varicose like you like to, now?
(Blue swollen veining) (Are you tired, Ma? Tired to death, love.)
What are you twitchin your muscles like a flybit horse for? asked Wes. And stop swallowin snot.
He slept again This man he hardly knew who came and took everything and him and put him in a place he did not know where he was. Slumped sagged, like . . .
Wes, if you set your feet up on something. WES
If I what?
If you set your feet up on a box
A box. For Crizake
Or a chair and rub where your feet hurt
A box Say, did you do up that box today like I told you?
It rests them, Wes. You rub up, not down
Answer me, Did you? No. You leave the only thing I ask you to do, for me to do, on my day off My one day Just look at this place You didn’t help High neither when I asked you You think the candlefish run is goin to last forever? Maybe you might of brung in a basket or two Mrs Ed would’ve took it into consideration You cost boy ghostboy don’t you know that? My Saturday night for one thing my one night to howl you’re costin
(Shrimp!) (I’d better watch it; I’m really spoiling tonight.) A rancorous: What’s goin to be with you, you dummy kid? raps out anyway.
Sounding a long plaintive mockcowboy howl, switching on the light, yanking him up (God, he’s skinny) and with a shove that is half embrace, steers him in to dinner.
Where he’d pushed the boiled salt salmon and potatoes away, the crack on his plate said: Y. You cost, boy, you cost. In his wrist a little living ball pushed, as if trying to get out Where the visiting nurse put her pinky and counted too sick people
Sagged with weariness like Wes her stockings rolled down rubbing rubbing where the blue veins swoll
On the wall the bottom of the Indian bow made: U. No, a funny V, Y. V. Vaude-e-ville. He’d stay for it twice and the feature twice and maybe the serial too while the light the silvery light Face bigger and bigger on the screen Closer Vast glutinous face Sour breath IS YOU DERE, CHARLIE?
Bo. Only Bo. Everybody at the table laughing
And now the faces start up bigger than the room on the fast track Having to hold up Hurry
At the door, Wes heard it again, that faint rhythmic creak. The first time, nights ago, he had thought: is the little bastard jacking off? but it wasnt that kind of a sound. Switching the light on, he saw the boy – as usual – lying on the cot, arm over his face – yes, and rolled into his blanket. The sound had stopped.
Sit up. Don’t you know enough to excuse yourself when you leave a table sudden? Mrs Edler was askin me, could you go upriver with her tomorrow to the deer or jumpdance or some such Indian thing they’re having at Terwer. She must want somebody else white to come along with her pretty bad.
Is you dere, Charlie? You jumped a mile when Bo yelled that into your mug. Serves you right, sitting there night after night like you’re no place at all, hardly answerin if people talk to you. Why are you such a snot? Why? (savagely) IS YOU DERE?
But the stupor, the lostness, the torpor) (the safety)
Keep away you rememorings slipping slidings having to hold up my head Keep away you trying to get me’s
Become the line on a plate, on a wall The rocking and the making warm the movement of leaves against sky
I work so hard for this safety Let me a while Let me)
– C’mon. Set up like you belong. We’re going to get shed of that box. Right now. But first you make up my bed. Just keep that blanket you dragged round the floor, and give me yours.
– C’mon, tuck those corners in. We keep things neat around here. Monday you’re starting school. For sure this time. No more of this laying around.
– Neat, I said. Now, where’s that goddamn box. And quite making those damn noises.
Scooping onto the bed:
boy-sitting-on-a-chamber-pot ash tray Happy Joss
Hollywood California painted fringed pillow cover
kewpie doll green glass vase, cracked
Jesus, what junk
tiny India brass slipper ash tray enamel cigarette case,
Fujiyama scene (thrown too close to the edge of the
bed, it slithers off, slips down behind) pencils, rubber
Junk is right. We sure throwed it in in a hurry
Plush candy box: sewing stuff: patches buttons in
jars stork scissors pincushion doll, taffeta bell skirt
glistening with glass pinheads